Neanderthals went fishing, cooked over hearths, ground paints, explored deep caves, and sometimes buried their dead. They made complex stone tools, pendant jewellery, and chemical adhesives. Their species thrived for 250,000 years, through multiple ice ages, across diverse ecosystems, from Britain to Gibraltar to Uzbekistan. They are our extinct cousins, whose DNA lives on in modern humans due to interbreeding. Still, the old trope persists: Neanderthals as poor, stooped brutes communicating with simple guttural sounds, eking out a violent life in the margins of survival. It’s unfortunate, when the details actually point to an intelligent, resourceful, adventurous and emotional species.
And now once again, a new discovery, this time the oldest evidence of fibre technology, has made us examine what Neanderthal life was really like. (The study was published on 9 April in Scientific Reports.) Twisted plant fibres were found adhered to a stone tool from an excavation at Abri du Maras in southern France. ‘Abri’ is the French word for ‘shelter’, and rock shelters have been inhabited by people for hundreds of thousands of years and into modern times. Thousands of stone artefacts as well as evidence of fire were revealed, in layers showing Neanderthal occupation. The stone tool with the fibres was found in these layers, dated to between 41,000 and 52,000 years ago.
A simple string is not so simple. Under reflected light microscopy, which allowed an extremely high-resolution image, pictures show a 6.2mm-long, 0.5mm-thick three-ply string, with each ply twisted counter-clockwise, and then the three twisted together in a clockwise direction. Doing this locks the fibres together and prevents it from unravelling, creating an exponentially stronger material. It’s the same engineering you find with metal cables holding up suspension bridges, or rope on sailing ships.
This discovery is exciting enough, as organic technologies are usually long rotted away, and archaeologists are left with only stones and bones except in rare circumstances. But impressive technology like this also gives us gratifying glimpses into Neanderthals’ minds. Making strong string is unlikely to have been invented just in that instance by one individual. It’s more likely that community knowledge of the technique was acquired and passed on through imitation or direct instruction from generation to generation.